Recently I had the opportunity to interview Elgin James who wrote and directed his debut movie Little Birds. Elgin has – to say the least – an interesting background. Here is an excerpt from an abstract of a recent New Yorker feature on the writer-director:
At forty-two, Elgin James is trim and fit, a vegan who has long forsworn drugs and alcohol. His upper body is a scrapbook of tattoos, many of which embody aspiration. Others are darker, the inky residue of James’s fifteen years leading a gang called F.S.U., for Fuck Shit Up. F.S.U. rose out of Boston’s hardcore music scene to become a straight-edge militia whose members prided themselves on beating up drug dealers and neo-Nazis. In 2006, James renounced gang life and moved to L.A., where he hoped to break into film. Before long, he had a berth at Sundance Labs, the prestigious indie-film boot camp. In L.A., he discovered that he had the essential qualities of a writer-director: charisma, determination, and a deep well of sorrow. “When someone like Elgin, someone who was so raw and broken, uses film to get out of the violence, and uses it so beautifully—I was just very taken by that,” Robert Redford, who founded the Sundance Institute in 1981, said. After taking Sundance Labs classes in screenwriting and directing, James worked to develop his first film, “Little Birds.” But as his producer succeeded in raising the five hundred thousand dollars they needed to shoot it, James was arrested by the F.B.I. for attempted extortion. After James finished editing “Little Birds,” he waived a trial and pleaded guilty. The news raced around Hollywood much faster than James’s script had. “Little Birds” premièred, at the Sundance Film Festival, in January, 2011. The film is an intimate, idiosyncratic portrait of two fifteen-year-old girls, Lily (played by Juno Temple) and Alison, who live on the shores of the Salton Sea, in California’s Imperial Valley. The crowd at Sundance was riveted. After the premiere, James learned that he had been sentenced to a year in the Metropolitan Detention Center, a federal prison. When he was released, this March, he was thirty pounds lighter, but glutted with ideas. Many in Hollywood have warmed to the Elgin James story because it fits one of the town’s stock narratives: the triumph of the human spirit. However, as you get paid more it gets harder to preserve the authentic voice that made you desirable. James’s common touch has attracted a band of industry stalwarts who are eager to help him succeed.
Part 1 of my conversation with Elgin James in which he recounts how he got into screenwriting / filmmaking and how he approaches the craft:
SM: First of all, congratulations on “Little Birds”.
EJ: Thank you so much, man. It is so cool to finally be able to, like, talk about it. It’s amazing.
SM: I bet you’ve been going through the rounds the last week or so.
EJ: Yeah, it’s been cool though – I mean, now I’m in New York which is rad. I actually got in last night, but it’s like when Juno [Temple], Kate [Bosworth], and I got to spend the day just doing all this stuff together and it was amazing. We asked them to finally let us, like, actually be the three of us together – because I think normally you have… directors always say ‘Oh, I love my actresses…’ and actresses always say ‘Oh, I love my director’, but it’s usually just Hollywood bullshit. With us, it’s really just like this real bond and a real family, so it’s been great to be back with them.
SM: I know you’ve probably done a lot of talking about your personal history. I was going to include an overview of that in the post, but I’d really like to focus on your screenwriting if you don’t mind.
EJ: I would love that. I don’t think anybody has ever asked me about that… ever.
SM: I was very interested, you know… obviously you have a provocative line, basically ‘movies saved my life’ and reading about you and how you grew up on movies. When did it first occur to you that someone actually wrote those stories, the idea of screenwriting or writing screenplays. Do you remember that?
EJ: You know what, when I was pretty young, I was lucky. Even when I was little, as I’ve said before, I had horrible nervous tics. I was a really scared kid, and my mom was the one that realized they stopped, but it wasn’t like – like I say – I was watching “Billy Jack” and “Planet of the Apes”. It wasn’t like I was watching “Citizen Kane” or anything, even though I still love both those movies. I started pretty young… when you’re younger, and I think maybe just because of the 70’s and early 80’s, parents are different. You’re watching “Clockwork Orange” and you’re watching these things, and you hear about Stanley Kubrick and stuff. It’s kind of like my parents – we did not have any money, but they were very intelligent people, and I was really lucky that way. So it happened actually, pretty early on that I started to figure that out.
SM: What training did you have in terms of screenwriting? Did you read books or was it just from watching movies?
EJ: You know what it was – it was really the great gift. It’s hard because when the story gets told, and people talk about your past. My father, he had his issues and he had his issues in his relationship with me, but he also had a great part of him. One of the amazing gifts he gave to me was a love of reading. When I was a kid, we had this farmhouse that we ended up losing because we had no money… but we had a whole room that was just a library, filled with books. As a kid, when there was nothing to read and I was bored, so I’d go in and all of a sudden go ‘what’s here?’ There’d be like Irwin Shaw, or like Saul Bellow, or all these people. I didn’t understand most of what I was even reading, even later like a Raymond Carver. But, I got this love of short stories, and when I went to Los Angeles finally to make movies, not really knowing how I was going to do that… what that would entail… there’s a project put together about my life story and I’d sit in the room with these writers and the producers talking about the film and I’d be like ‘You know what? I think you’re wrong. I feel like I know as much about story as you.’ So when I finally sat down to try to write – writing myself – I didn’t want to write particularly about what happened to me because I was so worried about glamorizing the violence… like glorifying the violence…which I was so judgmental to them about. So I tried to do it myself and I’m like… oh yeah, that’s hard. But what helped me is I realized that I already had that cadence in my head from reading all these mid century short story writers with these, like, short muscular sentences, right to the point, like an economy of words. And that’s where it was… it was literally like from reading and from writing and keeping journals since I was about twelve years old.
SM: That’s interesting. I saw something one time that said by the time a person reaches the age of twenty-one in the United States, they will have seen, heard, or read 10,000 stories.
SM: So that’s probably true, that we all have some sort of innate sense of story.
EJ: Oh, I think you’re totally right, and as a screenwriters, that’s kind of our duty to tell the…people say ‘no, you’re just telling the same stories over and over’…but to find different ways to usurp expectations a little bit but still have it feel warm, you know what I mean? To still have it feel comfortable, because we’re used to a certain – and I realized, even, finishing “Little Birds”, and then having it premiere, and then sitting in prison for a year, I was like – alright, I want to get better at my craft – and so I read like 101 books while I was there and just started to figure things out like okay… we’re used to stories since primitive time and maybe I strayed a little too far at times of when we expected to get out… like we stayed in the Salton Sea for a really long time, but that’s kind of a story that I wanted to tell. I wanted it to be a slow burn. So it was kind of like this thing… to not be chained by that as screenwriters, but to be aware of it. It’s almost like playing jazz a little bit. You learn all the rules and then you learn how to throw them away at times and break them interestingly.
SM: That’s one of the constant critiques you hear from managers, producers, and studio executives. There are so many formulaic scripts. In fact I saw a comment by a producer recently where he said he hated Joseph Campbell. Why? He said basically because he sees all these formulaic Hero’s Journey scripts. That’s sad, isn’t it? When you reduce a brilliant, inspirational figure like Joseph Campbell and The Hero’s Journey, which is really this energetic, organic expression of narrative, to some simple rote formula.
EJ: Totally, and that’s such a thing where people just sell themselves short anyway and be like ‘What is my shortcut?’ You know what I mean? As opposed to trying to tell something interesting and figuring out who you are through writing – and that’s really what it is – we have all this horrible or beautiful wreckage inside of us and then you try to just get it out somehow and that’s the beautiful thing about words. Even when you read a book, or in a screenplay, when someone puts together these words that you’re familiar with, but puts them together in a certain way… that all of a sudden it’s like “I feel that way all the time and I could never figure out how to articulate that”… that’s just like magic. But then for other people, and that’s being a writer… as other people are like “Oh, I want to be in the movie business and what do I have to do? I have this great idea about boy meets girl… and what are these other films like? How can I do that? Let me buy “Save The Cat”. Let me buy “The Hero’s Journey”. But, like, oh wow… there’s too much stuff in here… what’s the gist? What can I just get through? How can I just break it down? I feel as an artist, you’re just selling yourself so short.
Tomorrow Part 2 of my Q&A with writer-director Elgin James.
Here is a synopsis of Little Birds:
15 year-old Lily (Juno Temple) and her best friend Alison (Kay Panabaker) live on the shores of the Salton Sea among rundown trailers parks, rotting household items, drained pools and decaying streets. What was once an oasis for the wealthy and famous has become a near ghost town, leaving its residents fighting for breath in the deep end. Lily feels eternally claustrophobic and rebellious, living with her manic, single mother (Leslie Mann), clinging to hope for something more exciting than visits with her young and already washed up Aunt (Kate Bosworth).
When they meet a few visiting street kids, the girls’ bond is finally tested and Lily convinces Alison to follow the boys back to Los Angeles. Not intimidated by the journey ahead, Lily is hopelessly drawn to one of the boys and the freedoms of their lifestyle. But in the big city, Lily and Alison quickly fall into the boys’ world of scams and petty crime. Lily is determined to stay and make it work, while Alison is overwhelmed and eager to return home. When an idea is hatched to use Lily as bait for men with money to steal, things quickly escalate to a life-changing moment. Lily must decide how far she will go to grow up and Alison must decide how far she will go to protect Lily.
Here is the movie’s trailer:
Here is the movie’s website.
Little Birds debuted in NYC on August 29th. It screens for the first time in LA on September 14th.
Thanks to one of my former UNC students Ariel Butters for setting the interview into motion. Ariel has been working with Electric City Entertainment, one of the producing outfits involved with Little Birds.
Thanks as well to Black List intern Justin Kremer for handling the transcription of the interview and turning it around as quickly as he did.